Tim Rutten

writes about the media for the Los Angeles Times

The historian Jacques Barzun once remarked, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game."

That, of course, is precisely why former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell's damning report on Major League Baseball's rampant drug abuse is dispiriting and distressing on so many levels.

The opening paragraph on the Dec. 13 Associated Press story captured the essence of the thing:

"NEW YORK - Seven MVPs and 31 All-Stars - one for every position - and that still wasn't the worst of the long-awaited Mitchell Report. That infamy belonged to Roger Clemens, the greatest pitcher of his era."

It's an epoch that now has acquired its own designation: the Steroid Era.

It's also a period in which all American professional sports declined from sports into spectacles, multibillion-dollar adjuncts of the digital entertainment industry. Stadiums and even the events themselves lost their names and became expensive billboards auctioned off to the highest bidders.

A vast apparatus of sports journalism was created to provide entertaining coverage of this new industry, and yet, somehow, all but a handful of lonely sportswriters seem to have missed the biggest story of their era: the transformation of baseball clubhouses into the plush equivalent of crack houses.

Alcohol and drugs always have been a part of professional sports, but the latter usually were confined to painkillers, occasional amphetamines, and quack hangover cures.

Where there's money on the line, occasionally corners are going to get cut, but what we're being shown is that a stunningly large percentage of our national pastime's highest-performing stars are doing it with drugs.

They're not necessarily more talented than their peers, they're simply more willing to risk their health and lives by screwing around with the chemistry of their blood and hormones.

Everyone involved with Major League Baseball - players, managers, coaches, owners, agents, lawyers, union officials, the majority of sportswriters, and even the fans - is complicit in all this. We've all turned a blind eye to what was there for anyone with eyes to see for the sake of profit and an entertaining spectacle.

Shame on every player who gave in to this stuff; shame on every owner, agent or lawyer who turned a nickel's profit from drug-fueled baseball; shame on every writer who didn't follow up on what he or she had to know was happening; shame on every fan who shrugged and salivated over a new home-run record.

Baseball's seasonal rhythms are those of our own rural paradise lost: hopeful promise in springtime; diligent toil through summer; harvest and reward in autumn; the warmth of well-earned rest in winter. So it was in that long-ago America of our collectively imagined past.

It would be lovely to believe that honest, sober, fearless George Mitchell - having done the impossible by bringing peace to Northern Ireland - might now work a domestic miracle, and somehow recall us all to the memory of our better sporting nature.

Unfortunately our sporting culture, like our society as a whole, has bitten too deeply into the forbidden fruit of the tree of profit and loss.

In all likelihood, the Mitchell Report will come and go and - after a sufficient number of cosmetic public-relations gestures - everyone involved in the business of baseball will go back to business as usual.

Shame on us, if that's true.